Well made hardwood furniture will outlast its owner

When you buy a nicely made piece of hardwood furniture, you are not just buying it for yourself - generations to come will enjoy it as much as you do. There are three things necessary for a piece of furniture to last; good materials, carefully considered design, and proper construction techniques. Nice materials alone don't ensure longevity. Carefully considered design and proper construction techniques are just as critical.


Construction Details

The nicest wood in the world is wasted in a piece if the designer doesn't bear in mind how wood behaves in the real world. The moisture content of wood changes with the seasons, and in response to its environment. When it absorbs moisture, it expands across the grain (e.g. a plank will become wider) and when it loses moisture, it shrinks across the grain (the length is not greatly affected). No amount of finishing will stop this, and furniture that is not designed to accommodate this movement will eventually fall apart.

One common solution to this problem is to arrange all the parts such that their grain is all parallel, for instance a blanket chest with dovetailed corners has the sides and front and back all oriented with the grain parallel. Many simple pieces are built like this, but its success depends on the various pieces all expanding and contracting the same amount. In smaller pieces, this works fine. But in larger pieces, even if all four sides are taken from the same board, there may be differences in how the pieces expand and contract due to differences in the grain, which is why if you examine an old chest that is built this way, more often than not you will find one side or end is cracked.


That is why frame and panel construction, as shown in this blanket chest, was invented. The panels can expand and contract within their frames, and place no stress on the joints in so doing. The frames around the panels- the stiles and rails- are  narrow enough that their movement from moisture change is minimal. This style of construction involves a great deal more joinery than a simple dovetailed box, which is where the famed mortise and tenon joint comes in. This is the joint that holds a post and beam frame- as found in old barns or my house- together. The mortise is a pocket cut into the receiving piece, and the tenon is in effect a tail cut into the piece which joins it. In a post and beam frame the joints are pegged, as are the mortise and tenons in the corners of old window sash, and still in some modern furniture.

In the past, the glue used in furniture, traditionally hide glue, was very inflexible, and would eventually fail, as the grains of the two parts are perpendicular to one another, and so moove in different directions. So the peg was necessary to hold the joint together. Modern adhesives are flexible enough to accommodate the small amount of movement between the pieces, so at this point pegs are more decorative than functional.

In the front of this chest, for instance, there is a mortise and tenon joint at each corner, and one at each end of the vertical rails- the ribs between the panels-for a total of ten joints in the front. There are ten more in both the back and the top, and six in each end, for a total of 42. This is a bit of work, but the result is a chest that will not be adversely affected by moisture changes. Mortise and tenon joinery and frame and panel design have been used for hundreds of years because they work beautifully, and look beautiful as well.

I use frame and panel design in my pieces when it makes sense to do so. I also make use of sliding dovetail joints for the drawer supports in my dressers and night tables, and also to affix their tops, There are no metal fasteners of any sort in my dressers or night tables.

I make dovetailed drawers, because that is another construction which has stood the test of time. There are faster and easier ways of making drawers, but they don't hold up as well long term. I cut the dovetails by hand, and so get a break from noise of equipment.


My Advantage

My background making custom doors and windows exposed me to many highly productive and very accurate machines that the average small shop is not likely to have- a straight line rip saw for fast safe rough sizing of planks, a four sided planer to accurately mill the stock to finished width and thickness in one pass, a tenoner/shaper to tenon the ends of rails, and numerous options to make mortises quickly and accurately.

I have outfitted my shop with these tools, and they make safe, quick, and accurate work of the basics of production. This allows me to focus my energies on choosing nice wood for a given piece, and paying attention to details.



Chris Lumley
204 Crosley Way
Putney VT 05346




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